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Vincent Katz

At The Crux: Jim Dine's New Hearts

by Vincent Katz

Every day, we are becoming more and more immersed in a way of looking that is not the one people have relied on for centuries. We have come to regard what's on our computer screens as reality, whereas a simple look out the window would convince us otherwise. Painting, however--the actual marks and textures of paint applied to a support--cannot be represented on a computer screen. The physical nature of painting is linked to the act oflooking at a three-dimensional object.

Many artists use paint, but few are interested in painting. Painting these days is a ruse. It is enlisted to beefup various causes. It is against an objectionable social position. It makes fun of convention. It mimics the inevitable. Devoid of basic skills, it trumpets its flouting of technique. Some of these motivations are topical, some passe. Others spring from noble impulses. But they do not provide sufficient causes for using paint on canvas.

Jim Dine paints for himself and against the history of painting. He senses that history at his heels, which perhaps explains why he feels the need to attack his surfaces. He must defend himself against the encroachments of history's examples as well as against contemporary naysayers, especially those cloaked in the banners ofthe most modern and forward-looking.

Painters who are concerned with technique delight in speaking of the making of their paintings, as it is there they reside on a daily basis. Dine is no exception. He spends about six months of the year in Walla Walla, Washington, dividing the rest ofhis time between Paris, New York, and Gottingen, Germany. He has studios in all those places and works constantly.

His painting process is physical, which is one reason why his large space in Walla Walla is suitable. "I use acrylic," he says, "sometimes on wood, sometimes on linen, but then I add sand--a lot of sand--and then grind it of. And the grinding, you couldn't do it in a Paris apartment." I am intrigued by the grinding, which he does with power grinders. Why does he do it? He explains:

Let's say there'll be a passage where I feel the value of the shape is too intense for the one next to it. I have different colored sands. I have gray and beige and then sand that I sweep back up off the floor. It takes a little charcoal in it, and I'll throw it at that patch, and the patch then will be knocked back. It's hard to see it now because there are so many layers. I've painted on these literally every day I've been here.

I am put in mind of de Kooning's practice of painting all day, only to scrape the surface down at the end of the day, then begin again the next day on top of the previous day's pentimenti. The joke used to be that a de Kooning was finished only when someone bought it and took it out of the studio. Dine's process, on the contrary, is one oflayering and taking away in particular areas, but not scraping down an entire painting. "My method has always been to correct," he states, "either by putting things on top of or by removing through abrasion." Unlike de Kooning, Dine does know when a painting is finished, though it may take a long gestation period, during which he works on prints and sculptures and even leaves the painting alone while traveling.

Dine is known for his devotion to oil paint, but it turns out this new series is done entirely in acrylic. "There's no oil," he explains. "I haven't used oil paint in about four or five years. I don't kid myself--the oil paint is more beautiful, but the acrylic suits me and my method of correction, whereas oil paint is quite fragile." Acrylic can withstand Dine's electrically powered incursions. In addition to the sand and the grinding, Dine has, in one of his two Walla Walla studios, an air compressor that he uses to spread color he has laid down with a brush. Meanwhile, he bends acrylic's nature, exploiting it for depth and liquidity instead offor its accustomed flatness and punch.

Dine has long had an interest in combining different forms of mark-making in his paintings. Now, in the larger paintings particularly, it seems as though this challenge of combining diverse textures, of achieving a balance of painted marks, has become supreme. It is not all-over; discrete areas of substantial color are allowed to come forward. In the smaller paintings, done on wood, the surfaces are modeled and the results more atmospheric.

Dine has long had an interest in combining different forms of mark-making in his paintings. Now, in the larger paintings particularly, it seems as though this challenge of combining diverse textures, of achieving a balance of painted marks, has become supreme. It is not all-over; discrete areas of substantial color are allowed to come forward. In the smaller paintings, done on wood, the surfaces are modeled and the results more atmospheric.

The idea of process makes itself felt in a new image-source for this body of work. The heart images in these paintings were formed by drawing in charcoal or by painting on linen or wood primed with gesso and sand. Differently painted surfaces within the large-scale motif of the heart, long a Dine staple, give the heart a diversity of textures. Some of the small-scale images, within and outside the hearts, derive from a palette Dine used. This palette, it must be noted, does not look like the traditional painter's palette, which was a motif in Dine's early work, functioning symbolically as an exemplar of one of the tools of the trade. That palette has had a romantic connection for Dine since he was sixteen and saw a collection of actual palettes, with their 7 owners' names affixed, installed in a shop in Cincinnati.

The new palette, by contrast, is a large sheet of Plexiglas, on which Dine mixed colors for paintings. Turning the sheet upside down, he found a series ofgestures in bright colors, which he then imported as found motifs into these new paintings. The resultant color-shapes create collisions of the metaphysical and the mundane, the generalized and the particular.

When I came back one spring after being away all winter and saw this palette just leaning there, I thought, I could paint about that, it could make ideas. I mean, why is this any less profound than trees or the lines on a face? You could find all sorts of things here. You could cut this up 25 times and blow up those cut-up elements, and you'd have another complete show of what paint can do, of what association of form can do.

The shapes from the palette recur from painting to painting in the series. After looking for a while, one finds these color-shapes achieving cumulative identity, much like the heart itselfand Dine's other large-scale motifs. They are abstract motifs within representational themes or ideas.

The heart-forms in the new paintings are undeniably present. As in the past, their curves have bodily shapes and sexual connotations. They are forms of passion. But at the same time, the hearts are becoming submerged in paint. The submersion of the heart allows the found paint-motifs to come out more. There are even areas in these paintings that are unmodulated, which is unusual for Dine. The loss ofimage clarity, the sense oflosing focus, has given ever-greater clarity to the component parts of the image. This makes the paint textures that much more tangible, and enjoyable.

There is a crux here: painting with an image and painting with no image. Dine has, since his earliest days, been one of those who fought for the image, who believed that painting in our time needs to be a picture of something, but now he may be at a crossroads, where the pull ofpainting goes beyond the image. As Dine puts it, "I'm not afraid to let the heart go, but I just wondered, if l let it go, would it be anything?"

One answer might be found in a particular light. Living in southeastern Washington for half the year has to affect a visual artist, even if he does not literally depict the landscape. It is Big Sky country, with seas ofwheat fields, low rolling hills dotted with household farms, many of them with a horse or sheep or pigs, worn-out barns on the edge of town, curves in the road that have looked the same for decades. Dine himself mentions the light there, how it seeps into his paintings, although not in a literal sense. The paintings are dark and rich in pallette, but there is an energy in them that may come from the Washington sky and fields. In Dine's words,

When I paint here, I'm so inundated by nature all around me, where I live and the farm that I work on, and also just being in this Northwest light. The Northwest of the United States on this side of the Cascades has a desert light, and it's quite brilliant and burns things out, and therefore I have to keep intensifying so that I don't get washed out by the light.

Another answer might be in the practice itself. If his method has always been to correct, is it plausible to consider the possibility of a perfect painting? Is perfection even a worthwhile goal for an artist? "I would hate to be a prisoner ofperfection, of the quest for perfection," Dine replies, "because I presume it wouldn't allow for much else in one's life. There's a quest to take a painting as far as I can take it with as much knowledge as I have at a given time."

I think of the Abstract Expressionists' principle ofimprovisation and I try to trace a history, beginning with Pollock, de Kooning, and Kline, continuing with Joan Mitchell, and then it starts to feel like deja vu. Dine mentions the abstract paintings of Alfred Leslie. I would like to bring in the spirit paintings of Eva Hesse, more for their attitude toward art than for their painting per se. Where does that leave us today? Very few painters take on the whole canvas as an area for freely deployed strokes, whose interactive effects are germane to their success. Martha Diamond, Merlin James, Albert Oehlen, and Thomas Scheibitz come to mind as contemporary painters who, in different ways, can be said to pursue the life of paint, but this lineage has few adepts.

Dine came of age in the late 1950s. He saw an art scene that had hope for a future based on painting. "All my life I've thought about Abstract Expressionism," he says. "It's never left me. It was what I was brought up on. I chose to believe as a boy that de Kooning and Kline were the hope for what the world should look like, what it could become, after Picasso and Matisse." Painting is often used today to give an art work cachet: it must be serious-it was made with oil paint. Jim Dine, using acrylic, turns that truism on its head. He has taken the tradition to a place where it pulses with a new and previously unexperienced life.